The Beekeeper stood up and stretched his back, watching the honey run down his gloves and feeling it drip onto the sleeve of his protective suit, staining the sharp, white material with an amber hue. The light was bright and the slight breeze filtered through the mesh mask of the suit, cooling his hot skin. He closed his eyes, savouring the moment.
The bees hovered all around him, subdued by the smoke, lazily resting on his suit, drunken travellers. Some came closer to his face to investigate but remained only inquisitive, alarm pheromones reduced, pondering at the presence of his huge form. The honeycomb was rich with spoils, the fanning of the bee-wings doing its work. The Beekeeper moved quickly, his gloved hands still nimble despite the restriction of the clothing, deft fingers extracting the honey. For a brief moment the bees flared up, sensing this blatant act of thievery, the exploitation of the proletariat, but no revolution came. The uprising soon subsided, coming to rest on the surrounding blossoms and the weather-beaten wood of the hive. The meadow was alive with activity, insects darting amongst the grass, birdsong echoing from the branches of the trees. It was a fine summer day.
After collecting the spoils from three or four honeycomb frames, the Beekeeper noticed the first few bee carcasses balanced precariously on the inner struts of the hive structure. He poked at the small insects with his gloved finger. There was no motion at all, no response. Not even the slight quiver of wings or the movement of yellow or black. Not good, he thought, reaching into his satchel for a glass tube and a pair of tweezers. Carefully he picked the carcass up by its body and placed it into the glass tube, remembering to secure the plastic stopper into place. He held it aloft, examining the entombed drone in the sunlight.
“No evidence of mites,” he whispered, turning the specimen around in his hand. “No discolouration of body or wings. Definitely a drone from the size of the body. Next step, check for workers”.
The Beekeeper returned to the hive, remaining calm, carefully searching. An initial sweep quickly confirmed his suspicion. The Queen was clearly visible and there were still some worker bees in the hive, but only a few dozen instead of the usual hordes. They were all young too. Most of the bees moving around were larger in size. Drones. “Colony Collapse. Damnit!” There were more drone bodies too, several dozen to be found on the floor of the hive. “This is something else though”.
Stretching up, the Beekeeper turned his attention to the bees on his suit. They were all drones too; none of the surviving worker bees had made their way from the hive to investigate. As he stood and pondered what was happening, a lone, inquisitive worker flew unnoticed onto the cusp of his glove and found its way inside his suit.
There was a faint pinprick and the Beekeeper laughed. “Would you believe it.” He pulled down the glove and saw the barb protruding from his skin. “Pause program!”
The bees stopped flying, hovering inches from his face. The other insects stopped moving too and the long, meadow grass stood motionless, bent as if caught in a breeze. Above, the clouds stopped floating across the blue sky.
The Beekeeper took off his mask and wiped his brow with the sleeve of the suit. “Good job I’m not allergic,” he said.
“Of course you’re not allergic,” a computerized voice responded. “You were deliberately chosen because of this very fact. The new strain will contain a more potent apitoxin. Five times stronger by my calculations. Plus, it’s not real”.
“Thanks for the info,” the Beekeeper responded. “Was I correct?”
“Partly. Collapse was correct, but does not completely account for the death of the drones, as you suggest. Would you like to review your performance?”
“No thank you,” the Beekeeper replied, laughing. “That’s enough for one day. It’s obvious I need to search through the archives in more detail. End program”.
The bees and the hive instantly vanished amongst a flash of green light. The meadow was gone, leaving the Beekeeper alone in a small grey, room covered with hexagonal panels. He removed the protective suit now that the simulation was over and walked over to the solitary door, which slid open as he approached.
As he moved into the white corridor the computer continued through the intercom: “Time for your supplements. Please report immediately to the kitchen.”
“Alright, alright. I know. I’m on my way.”
The kitchen was opposite the training room and now that he was out of the simulation the Beekeeper could hear the familiar and, by now, comforting background hum, the machinery of life at work, twenty-nine hours a day, constantly. The plain, white decor of the station shook slightly too, pulsating to the rhythm of the never-ending mechanical God. The kitchen itself was slightly more homely, a small table area still showing the remnants of breakfast, a solitary bowl and coffee-stained mug. The Beekeeper moved over to the sink, lifted up a yet-to-be-cleaned glass and filled it halfway with water. By the tap stood an automated drug dispenser, a hollow tube into which he placed his forearm. He felt the slight sting of the hypodermic as it pierced his skin. A measured dose of drugs entered his bloodstream.
“Supplements administered,” said the mechanical voice.
Removing his arm, he grabbed the glass and took a gulp of purified water, the recognisable tang of chemicals assaulting his taste buds. No matter how long he was stationed here, he would never get used to that taste. At least it was better than the water on Earth. Occasionally he would recall the refreshing sensation of ice cold water slipping down his throat. A childhood memory. So much change in only a few decades.
Doing his patrol he passed the nursery and looked in through the glass windows at his precious cargo. Automatons glided purposefully between tall metal hives – twenty lined-up in total. He noticed that one of the automatons needed some repair work on its upper arm. A task for later. Eventually he would be allowed to enter the nursery, but not for now. His job was simple: learn. Be ready for the moment. He liked to watch the automatons do their work, harvesting the honey, testing for disease, checking the health of the colonies. He found it soothing. He came close to the window, looking at the bees that rested on the other side of the glass. Their wings mesmerised him, their perfect, engineered bodies growing better every day. He had not needed to learn all of this apian knowledge, but his cargo had captivated him, sparked his imagination. So long thought to be extinct on Earth, these insects had been re-engineered. They were perfect. Their time in isolation was almost complete. Besides, what else was there to do? The automatons and the machinery were self-sufficient, only needing sporadic maintenance. Why not look after the bees too? Learn their secrets.
The Beekeeper took up his regular vantage point next to the nursery. The huge bay window looked out over the barren, rocky landscape. Yet in the distance he could see the source of the continuous noise: the huge terraforming machine named Melissa, with its partner Deborah at the other side of the globe, pumping the particles of life into the atmosphere. Pretty soon the Beekeeper would be free to roam outside the station, take in the new world, the new plants, be the first to breathe new air before the rest of mankind followed.
At that moment something landed on the other side of the glass. The Beekeeper looked closer despite knowing exactly what it was. There, looking at him with its robotic eyes was a mechanical bee, its wings buzzing. The Beekeeper moved closer and the mechanical bee looked back at him. In that instance they seemed to share an understanding, before it lifted off from the glass with its tiny piston legs and floated away to continue its work. Man and bee. God and pollinator. Soon the trees and grass and meadows would surround him and the Beekeeper would step out onto that green canvas and release the bees into the New World.